LONDON (Reuters) - Two car bombs in heavily guarded areas of Algeria’s capital show the government’s failure to get a grip on militants who have regrouped under al Qaeda’s banner and struck both state and international targets on Tuesday.
Western security sources appeared shocked by the ease with which suspected militants of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African arm of Osama bin Laden’s network, evaded heightened security in Algiers and detonated bombs that killed 67, according to a health ministry source.
“The fact they’ve been able to get this done is regarded as highly unusual,” a U.S. official said.
One European official said the targeting of a U.N. building — in line with past al Qaeda statements denouncing the world body as an agent of injustice against Muslims — was a significant new departure for AQIM, which has previously focused on Algerian state symbols and foreign energy workers.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said there was no doubt the U.N. site had been deliberately targeted, and called it a tragedy and an outrage. The other bomb went off outside the Constitutional Court.
“It’s proof once again that the Algerian security apparatus is not in control of the situation,” French counter-terrorism consultant Claude Moniquet said.
While there was no claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s blasts, the government was quick to blame the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the movement that reinvented itself as AQIM in January.
Some Western officials were sceptical at the time, seeing the move as a bid by a fading militant force to tap into al Qaeda’s global “brand”. But evidence has since grown to suggest that brand is delivering tangible benefits.
Some believe the relaunched entity is better placed now to raise funds and attract recruits, and suspect it has stepped up its training activities in the Sahel region on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert.
They also suggest the emergence of a North African al Qaeda might encourage more militant Islamists in the region to join up locally instead of travelling to join the insurgency in Iraq.
“It’s quite possible that by aligning themselves to the al Qaeda movement, they’re able to appeal to a more zealous suicidal type of terrorist that wants to carry out a martyrdom operation ... I don’t think that’s an implausible explanation as to why we’re seeing more suicide attacks in Algeria,” said Henry Wilkinson of Janusian Security Risk Management in London.
In the past year, AQIM has switched from guerrilla-style provincial ambushes to more varied strikes against a range of targets, from military barracks to foreign oil and gas workers and a bid to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
It has adopted multiple, simultaneous suicide attacks, a hallmark of al Qaeda, and brought its war to the capital for the first time since Algeria’s civil strife of the 1990s. European countries like France and Spain are concerned it may have the ambition and capacity to strike outside the region.
Moniquet said the militants were exploiting the weakness of the Algerian state, noting Bouteflika has suffered serious health problems and the government has yet to replace the number two security and intelligence official, who died in August.
“Nature hates vacuums,” he wrote on the Web site of his European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.
“Given its own importance and its prominence as an energy supplier, if Algeria topples in a new crisis such as bloodied it during the 1990s, all the Maghreb will tremble and Europe will feel the repercussions hard.”
Additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Matthew Tostevin